The return of Eric O’Flaherty — who saw that coming? — Fredi Gonzalez gives some clarity on where he’s initially going at cleanup and the state of Jhoulys Chacin’s rotation bid in the latest Braves spring training Three Cuts.
The small sample size that Adonis Garcia gave last season most certainly piqued Gonzalez’s interest, so much so that it appears the second-year third baseman is going to be the early pick to hit in the cleanup spot.
"I like that Garcia is a guy who’s capable of being able to scare the opponent a little bit," the manager told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
That would put the right-handed-hitting Garcia in between a pair of lefties in Freddie Freeman in his typical spot in the order — third — and Nick Markakis at fifth. Garcia has been filling that role of late in Grapefruit League play, hitting fourth in nine of the last 10 games and has done so 10 times overall this spring.
The overall results haven’t been spectacular as he’s hit .179/.172/.393 in 28 at-bats in that spot and .238/.233/.429 overall, but hitting fourth is where he’s delivered his only home run (along with two of his four strikeouts).
Garcia was a rare source of power for MLB’s lowest-scoring offense last season, hitting .277 with 10 homers and .497 slugging in 198 trips to the plate as a rookie and against lefties, he carried a .328 average and .638 slugging.
Considering Garcia will get every opportunity to keep the third base job, and with the amount of power he showed in that span — even if it carries the risk of being aberration with his .411 slugging in four seasons in Cuba and the minors — the Braves have to at least see if he can handle the role.
Where things get interesting is that Garcia’s good friend Hector Olivera isn’t getting more of an extended look. He’s logged just three at-bats in fourth, seeing most of his action in sixth in the order, but continues to hit well in spring with a .385 average.
The difference is that Garcia showed what Gonzalez is looking for in the regular season, even if it’s only small sample size. Hence, what looks to be a date with the No. 4 spot on Opening Day.
"We’re hoping that 10 home runs in 200 at-bats could turn into 18 or 20 in 400 at-bats, or 400-plus at-bats," Gonzalez told the AJC. "That’s the reason I’ve kept him in that position (this spring) more often than not."
The Braves search for a left-handed reliever has been … interesting. At MLB’s Winter Meetings, they took Evan Rutckyj in the Rule 5 draft from the Yankees, but ended up sending him back and Ian Krol and Matt Marksberry were both optioned to the minors (Triple-A and Double-A, respectively).
With only one option remaining in camp in veteran Alex Torres, Atlanta brought back a piece of bullpen pasts Sunday, acquiring Eric O’Flaherty from the Pirates for cash.
"We’ve been trying to find a left-hander all spring," Coppolella told reports. "He’s somebody we know. When our scouts saw him and when our field staff saw him, we felt like he was somebody who could help us out.
"Obviously, we know this guy’s great off the field. He was great on it with us. We’re hoping he can fill a need a help us get better."
As an aside, it was the second straight Easter Sunday in which the Braves dealt a reliever. A year ago, they packaged Craig Kimbrel in a trade with the Padres.
Coppolella also disclosed that the Braves aren’t done looking for left-handed help, but O’Flaherty gave them encouraging signs this spring with the Pirates. He had a 2.89 ERA, allowing 15 hits, eight runs (two earned) with two walks and eight strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings.
Of those eight K’s, four of them came against Atlanta on March 21.
O’Flaherty, 31, has a career 3.24 ERA in 435 appearances and last pitched for Atlanta in 2013. He spent 2015 with the A’s and Mets, posting an 8.10 ERA with 15 strikeouts and 13 walks in 21 1/3 innings.
Whether or not he can rekindle the success he had with the Braves, bringing him back into the fold is a surprising development considering how flush Atlanta was with lefties to start camp. But that their still active with the season opening in a week at least speaks to Coppolella’s commitment to fix a relief corps that was 29th in the majors with a 4.69 ERA in ’15.
For the last couple of weeks, Chacin has seemed to viable choice to fill one of the last two spot in the Braves rotation behind Julio Teheran, Bud Norris and Matt Wisler. But his Sunday start against the Nationals creates some doubt.
The right-hander allowed 10 hits in five innings, and in his last three starts, opponents have racked up 22 hits in 11 1/3.
The seven-year veteran has been competing with Mike Fotlynewicz and Williams Perez for the final two spots, but with Gonzalez having noted his comfort level with Perez and the progress Fotlynewicz has made in his return from rib-removal surgery and a blood clot, do they need Chacin?
There are at least some uncertainties weighing in Chacin’s favor as Fotlynewicz could be held back until April 14 or 17, and Perez can be a long-relief option if Gonzalez opts to ride another experienced arm in Chacin.
But in camp on a minor league deal, Chacin has a late opt-out date (June) built in if he’s not on the major league roster, meaning he could conceivably open the year at Triple-A Gwinnett.
Given this again figures to be the majors’ youngest rotation, keeping another experienced starter in the mix seems most in line with the Braves’ moves over the past few seasons.
Best guess right now is that Chacin opens the year at No. 4, Fotlynewicz comes aboard when healthy and Perez (in long relief) is kept around to seize a spot should Chacin struggle. But right now, the veteran in that conversation is doing Gonzalez and the team’s brain trust no favors.
As Gonzalez said after Sunday’s game "There’s a lot of stuff we’ve got to talk about, but performance weighs heavy."